Marsilius of Padua (V): The Best Mode of Establishing Government

In previous chapters of his Defender of the Peace,:”(Trans., Alan Gewirth.)”: as we have seen, Marsilius of Padua laid out some basic Aristotelian principles about the goals of human life and means for achieving them. In Discourse I, Chapter VIII, Marsilius begins to construct what will eventually be a multi-pronged Aristotelian assault on the feudalized and tyrannical form of papalist government which dominated ecclesio-politics in his day.

The first step is to review Aristotle’s classification of types of government.:”(Ibid., pp. 460-461.)”: There are two genera of government, one which seeks the common good, and another which seeks the good of the ruler. Beneath these genera are six species – three of them healthy, and three of them diseased. The three healthy forms are monarchy, aristocracy, and polity. These correspond, in turn, to all the available logical options: rule by the One, rule by the Few, and rule by the Many. The three diseased forms are tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. These are the natural opposites of the healthy forms, and the healthy forms correspondingly degenerate into them: monarchy to tyranny, aristocracy to oligarchy, and polity to democracy.:”(This discussion may be found in Aristotle’s Politics, Book III, Chapter 7. Marsilius incorrectly says Book III, Chapter 5.)”:

Moving into Discourse I, Chapter IX, Marsilius then discusses Aristotle’s stipulated ways of establishing different types of government. Probably because the common Medieval assumption was that monarchy (rule by One) is the best form of government, most of his time is spent on ways of establishing different types of monarchy. Aristotle lists five ways,:”(Politics III, Chapter 14. Marsilius incorrectly says Book III, Chapter 8.)”: but Marsilius reduces them all to the simple formula “over either voluntary or involuntary subjects” – that is, either by election or by some sort of fraud or force.:”(Defender of the Peace, pp. 464-465.)”: Marsilius here brings into play the full force of the Aristotelian concept of the truly “political” life – namely, that it is a partnership between free and equal people who come together to rationally deliberate about the just and the unjust.:”(Politics, Book I, Chapter 2.)”: As such, the truly political life, or, life in a truly well-ordered city aiming at the final end of man, can only take place with a form of government which is based on the consent of the ruled. All three healthy forms of government (monarchy, aristocracy, polity) in some sense or another take serious account of the consent of the ruled. All three diseased forms of government (tyranny, oligarchy, democracy), however, operate apart from the consent of the ruled.:”(This may seem somewhat confusing to modern readers, since our concept of “democracy” is precisely that of government by consent of the ruled. For Aristotle [Politics Book III], however, democracy was a species of government wherein the mass of vulgar persons rule by mere fiats issued in the heat of their changing passions, not by stable law and concern for ethical progress. Consequently, for Aristotle democracy takes no account of the consent of free and equal people, and is for this reason not a truly “political” life.)”:

For Marsilius, then, the best mode of establishing a government is by election, by obtaining the consent of the governed. Such a method makes a government “more permanent in perfect communities.” It alone can obtain the best ruler, “For it is expedient that the ruler be the best man in the polity [government], since he must regulate the civil acts of all the rest.”:”(Defender of the Peace, 465.)”: Interestingly, like Aristotle himself, Marsilius rejects political idealism, the notion that there is only one form of government suitable for all people, everywhere, at all times: “Which of the temperate governments is better, monarchy or one of the other two species, aristocracy or polity…in all these questions there is room for inquiry and reasonable doubt.”:”(Ibid., 465-466.)”: People in different times and places differ and “are inclined toward different kinds of polity and government”:”(Ibid., 466, citing Aristotle’s Politics, Book III, Chapter 4, but incorrectly saying Chapter 9.)”: All of the papal monarchists of the later Middle Ages were zealous political idealists, sacrificing the practical realities of a changing world, the practical needs of Christendom, to their inflexible (and quite unChristian) monistic interpretations of monarchical government. It is probably no wonder, then, that like Plato’s foolishly unrealistic Republic, their attempts to incarnate their idealisms in the real world would end in utter failure.

At any rate, while specific forms of government can vary from time to time and place to place, for Marsilius what is “without doubt” is that “in accordance with the truth and the manifest view of Aristotle…election is the more certain standard of government…”:”(Ibid.).”: In this declaration one can clearly hear the death-knell of the absolutist form of papal monarchy, which viewed itself as being the sole determiner of the legitimacy and extent of authority of every other power on earth. Such a form of government was, on Aristotelian terms, simply a tyranny, and as such, it was a disordered, unhealthy pseudo-government working against man’s God-given final end.:”(See my recent entry on this blog “Aristotle’s Account of Tyranny” for much supporting documentation of this point about the nature and effects of tyranny.)”: Riding the waves unleashed by Aquinas, Marsilius of Padua is gathering his force like a tsunami to sweep the tyrant away.


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